Western Balkan enlargement will catalyse a stronger Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boyko Borissov chats with France's President Emmanuel Macron, next to President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite, during a family photo at an informal EU summit with Western Balkans countries at the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria, 17 May 2018. [EPA-EFE/VASSIL DONEV / POOL]

Addressing the reforms needed to prepare the six Balkan countries for EU accession can be cathartic in effect, and reinvigorate the European Union, writes Andrey Kovatchev.

Andrey Kovatchev is a Bulgarian Member of the European Parliament for the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group. He is EPP vice-chair for Enlargement and Mediterranean Policy, and the group’s rapporteur for Montenegro.

On 17 May at the Balkan summit hosted by the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU in Sofia, President Tusk reaffirmed the EU’s commitment to a European perspective for the Western Balkans.

“The European Union is and will remain the most reliable partner of the entire Western Balkans,” President Tusk said.

The Summit addressed many geopolitical issues, and set the direction in which the six Western Balkan nations should move forward on their way to EU accession.

In the current climate, there from some EU Member States to push forward a positive enlargement strategy. Meanwhile, some foreign actors are making a play for influence in the region. Therefore, we need all EU Member States to pull together to fight against the current division and doubt within the Union.

Europe is facing challenges that threaten to weaken it, and there are measures that we need to take internally to reform and strengthen the Union. By addressing the reforms needed to prepare the six Balkan countries for accession, this very process can be cathartic in effect, and reinvigorate the European Union.

An inclusive EU enlargement strategy that recognises and rewards the Balkan states who have moved towards their Euro-Atlantic goal is the only way forward when building a stronger and more united Europe. We need to overcome the gaps that divide Europe, and to work towards a positive agenda to unite the like-minded people throughout Europe, e.g. the ones in Albania.

The European Perspective and Connectivity of the Western Balkans is an important objective for the Bulgarian Presidency. As a Balkan country ourselves we deeply understand the strategic importance of strengthening the EU’s relations with the countries in our neighbourhood.

In April, the European Commission recommended to the Council that accession negotiations should be opened with Albania. I believe that such development will provide the much-needed recognition to the progress the country has achieved, and will help Albania to maintain the current momentum for reform.

At its June summit, the Council will make a decision on the Commission’s recommendation. Therefore, now it is of crucial importance that all groups in the European Parliament give their unequivocal support to the recommendation and provide it with a strong political impetus.

The European Commission has highlighted that, specifically for Albania, this progress will be crucial in the key area of rule of law. The country has to continue to deliver concrete and tangible results across five key reform priorities. The EC has commended Albania for the implementation of its comprehensive and thorough reform in the justice system. The vetting process of all judges and prosecutors has started and it is already delivering tangible, positive results.

Rule of law, justice and fundamental rights are of utmost priority for the process of EU enlargement if we are to achieve peace, security and stability in Europe. It is in the EU’s own interest to modernise the economies and societies of the Western Balkans, making them more prosperous and stable. The progress made so far is an important step forward, but there can and should be no shortcuts on the way to the European Union. It is essential that we give full support to the Albanian authorities to keep up and build upon the momentum that they have achieved so far in the reform programme. Moreover, with respect to security policy, Albania remains fully aligned with all EU common foreign and security policy positions and declarations, and is recognised to be a strong and committed EU partner in this regard.

We need to encourage and sustain their political commitment to maintain the progress on their road to reform. Moreover, we need to ensure that the reforms are properly implemented and that they achieve concrete results. A lot of work still needs to be done before their accession perspective can become a reality. In the meantime, we should support their reform efforts with focused financial assistance.

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